Speculation mounts that GOP senator may switch parties
WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney worked urgently Tuesday to prevent veteran Sen. Jim Jeffords from leaving the Republican party and delivering control of the Senate to the Democrats. ”I’m considering a lot of things,” said the Vermont lawmaker.
”I will be making an announcement tomorrow in Washington,” said the 67-year-old senator, fueling speculation he might become an independent or a Democrat.
Jeffords, a committee chairman who frequently crosses party lines on high-profile issues, has had strained relations with the White House. Officials said he met during the day first with Cheney and later with Bush at the White House.
Senior Republican officials said on condition of anonymity that the president urged Jeffords to remain a Republican, but the senator refused to commit either way.
Senior White House officials met Tuesday evening to discuss strategy for keeping Jeffords in the GOP fold and for how to handle the political fallout if he does leave the party.
A switch – whether to the Democrats or to become an independent – could have profound implications for the Senate, currently divided 50-50 along party lines, as well as for Bush’s legislative agenda. The party with a majority controls the flow of legislation in committees and on the Senate floor, and holds all the committee chairmanships.
Ironically, Vermont’s lone House member, Rep. Bernie Sanders, is an independent who votes with Democrats for organizational purposes.
”I very much want him to stay. I expect that he will,” said Senate GOP Whip Don Nickles. ”He’s a very, very valuable member of our caucus. I hope and expect he will stay in our caucus.”
One congressional Republican who has talked to Jeffords in recent days said the Vermont lawmaker was pondering the declining numbers and influence of moderate Republicans in recent years. ”That’s what’s on his mind right now,” said the Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Jeffords appears to have enormous influence in the current Senate, divided 50-50 along party lines. In addition to his chairmanship of the committee with jurisdiction over health and education legislation, he holds a seat on the Finance Committee, with its sway over tax and trade policy. As a Republican who sometimes votes with Democrats, he also is in a position to exert leverage on the White House and GOP leadership.
One option open to Jeffords is to become an independent, although he has given no public indication he is considering that beyond his statement that he was ”considering a lot of things.”
Democratic sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there had been discussions with Jeffords in recent weeks, including the possibility that he would receive a committee chairmanship, possibly the one he currently holds.
Asked about his plans, Jeffords said, ”Lots of people are trying to get me to do different things.”
Pressed as he got onto an elevator on whether he would switch, Jeffords smiled as the doors closed and said, ”Bye.”
It was unclear whether Jeffords intended to bolt from the party that has been his home for nearly a quarter-century in Congress, or was publicly venting his irritation with his treatment at the hands of the White House and GOP majority in the Senate.
Jeffords angered the White House this spring when he refused to support Bush’s budget with its $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax cut. Instead, he sided with a bipartisan group of lawmakers who forced changes on the Senate floor. The result was the first high-profile defeat for the new administration.
Shortly after that, Jeffords was not invited to the White House for a National Teacher of the Year award ceremony honoring a Vermont high school educator, a move widely viewed as political payback.
In addition, some GOP aides have whispered that the White House might retaliate by seeking changes in a dairy support system that benefits farmers in Vermont and the Northeast.
Bush did not contact Jeffords personally during the budget debate, leaving it to Cheney and administration staff officials to try to swing a deal for the senator’s support.
Former Sen. Robert Stafford, R-Vt., whom Jeffords replaced in the Senate in 1989, said Tuesday his successor called him this week to seek his advice.
”I think he is very seriously considering what would be the wisest thing for him and for Vermont,” said Stafford. ”I have no idea from that conversation what he intends to do.”
Associated Press writer Christopher Graff in Montpelier, Vt., contributed to this report.
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